Rockies begin new chapter under Weiss in '13

Rockies begin new chapter under Weiss in '13

DENVER -- The flipping of the calendar means new Rockies manager Walt Weiss moves closer to beginning to answer the big question of 2013: Is Weiss the man to restore winning in the Rockies?

"We've got to try to create an environment where we respect each other and we trust each other, and then you've got a chance at something special," Weiss said in December. "If you're just counting on running your talent out there, it's a tough league. It's tough to win just doing that.

"So we've got to create an environment that's different -- not necessarily different but special. And you do that by developing relationships and caring for one another and earning the respect of each other. For me, that's more important than the X's and O's right now."

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But as we begin looking toward Spring Training, when Weiss and his staff will work on the environment, it helps to take a good look at the nuts and bolts performance issues that the Rockies must address as they attempt to erase last year's 68-94 season under Jim Tracy.

Here's a look at 10 key questions:

1. Can pitchers get healthy and stay healthy?

Rockies pitchers need to improve, but you can't improve from the disabled list. But staying of the DL seems just as difficult as coming back from it.

Right-hander Jhoulys Chacin, who could move into a leadership position in the rotation, by all accounts is back from a nerve issue in the right side of his chest. He rejoined the rotation in August and pitched winter ball in Venezuela. But others who were hurt last year will have to prove their health.

Lefty Jorge De La Rosa had several setbacks in his return from elbow surgery and made three big league starts. He pitched in instructional ball and was supposed to go to winter ball in Mexico, but an irritation injury in his knee forced the Rockies to scrap that. Righty Juan Nicasio, whose season ended in early June because of a knee injury, and lefty Christian Friedrich, who missed the latter part of the season with a stress fracture in his back, also have to prove they can stay healthy. Both showed talent and inexperience last year.

When the Rockies went to a four-man rotation last year, they went to great lengths to keep lefty Drew Pomeranz -- the reason the Rockies dealt Ubaldo Jimenez to the Indians in 2011 -- from throwing on three days' rest. Still, he was scratched on occasions because of biceps soreness. The Rockies hope it was merely a young pitcher learning what he's capable of enduring.

The Rockies hope for dependable veteran leadership. Lefty Jeff Francis, who has agreed to return, has two healthy seasons behind him since battling through shoulder problems. The Rockies will took to trade for or sign another pitcher like him.

2. Assuming health, will the pitchers gain command?

The Rockies led the National League in home runs allowed at 198 and finished second in the NL in walks at 573.

These conditions especially afflicted starters, who had a Majors-worst 5.81 ERA. By going to a five-man rotation, the Rockies are offering the rotation more trust.

3. Can the Rockies' position players stay healthy?

Just put it this way: Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, first baseman Todd Helton, catcher Ramon Hernandez, outfielder/first baseman Michael Cuddyer and third baseman Chris Nelson -- all of whom started on Opening Day in Houston -- spent a combined total of 309 games on the disabled list.

4. Will new hitting coach Dante Bichette address the longstanding problem of producing offensively on the road?

Bichette certainly battled the issue during his time as one of the Rockies' earliest stars from 1993-99. His season home batting averages at Mile High Stadium and Coors Field ranged from .308 to .381. On the road, he hit .300 in 1995, .287 in '99 and .279 in '98, but was in the .246-.255 range in other seasons. Many hitters had far more dramatic splits.

The 2012 Rockies, under hitting coach Carney Lansford, actually finished first or second in many key offensive categories. However, there are other numbers the Rockies believe Bichette, with his experience as a player for the club, can attack.

On the road, the 2012 Rockies scored 272 runs, hit 66 home runs and batted .241.

Compare that to the 2007 NL-champion Rockies. The batting average then was a little higher, .266, and that magical team hit just two more home runs than last year. However, those Rockies executed well enough to score 382 runs -- 110 more than last year.

Also compare last year's Rockies to the 2009 club that went to the playoffs. That team hit worse on the road, .235. But en route to the postseason, the Rockies hit a whopping 92 homers and scored 340 runs away from Coors.

5. How much difference will a healthy Tulowitzki make to a defense that performed poorly?

Partly because he tried to play hurt from the first series of the year, when he first tweaked his left groin, to the day he left the lineup for good, Tulowitzki was not his usual sure-handed self in the field. The Rockies around him committed a high number of early errors.

The tailspin continued with Tulowitzki on the shelf. The Rockies led the Majors with 122 errors. Catcher Wilin Rosario led the Majors at his position with 13 errors and 21 passed balls, but miscues occurred all over the field with many players, sometimes playing multiple positions to fill holes. On the error chart, the Rockies finished second at center field, tied for fifth at first base and tied for sixth at shortstop.

In fairness, the pitching staff's issues with walks, long innings and lack of command had a way of weakening the defense. Still, improvement is needed.

6. After a long-overdue first invitation to the All-Star Game, can left fielder Carlos Gonzalez become a true superstar?

Gonzalez earned his second Rawlings Gold Glove Award after moving to left field. He essentially did all he could. But the absences of Tulowitzki, Helton and Cuddyer were the biggest factor in him having a good offensive year, instead of a dazzling one. He had 17 of his 22 homers before the break; the second half was a frustrating exercise in either waiting for fastballs that never came or trying to hit offspeed pitches in an attempt to have some kind of an impact.

He is expected to be in good shape after missing the final games with a leg injury. A preview will come early, since he is almost certain to be a mainstay in Venezuela's lineup during the World Baseball Classic.

7. Has Cuddyer made the adjustment to playing at a high altitude?

Cuddyer lived up to his reputation for hustle and smarts, and he had enough power to help Tulowitzki -- when both were active -- in the middle of the lineup. He also showed a willingness to play for long stretches.

But the two right oblique injuries, which cost him 55 games and finished his season early, are concerning. Cuddyer turns 33 during Spring Training. He should be a force in the lineup through the final two years of his contract, but playing at Coors in the altitude has hastened the decline of hard-driving players in the past.

8. How is Helton?

Helton opted for surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip late in the season in order for him to have a chance to return in 2013, a season during which he turns 40. Helton has spent the last couple of months trying to regain physical conditioning, but as of now it's anyone's guess when he will be ready for regular duty.

9. Are the kids OK?

Rosario led rookies in home runs and slugging percentage. Third baseman/first baseman Jordan Pacheco's .309 batting average led NL rookies. Josh Rutledge came up from Double-A to replace Tulowitzki at short and hit .274 with eight homers and 37 RBIs in just 74 games and could be the second baseman; however, DJ LeMahieu, who hit .297 in 81 games -- many at second base -- could be an option there.

That's all well and good, but the "sophomore jinx" isn't a made-up phenomenon. For everyone like Helton, who hit .315 with 25 homers as a rookie and .320 and 35 homers the following year, there is a Tulowitzki, who suffered through injuries and slumps for most of his second season and dropped from .291 with 28 homers to .263 and eight.

10. Did the trade with the Astros for righty Wilton Lopez give the Rockies the dependability they need at the end of games?

In giving up righty starter Alex White, the Rockies believe they obtained an experienced reliever who can keep the ball in the strike zone and out of the air in the key late innings. In 232 2/3 career innings, Lopez has 1.77 groundouts for every out in the air, and has fanned 159 against 39 walks. That falls in line with Matt Belisle, also a prime righty reliever, who has 1.34 groundouts to outs in the air and 470 career strikeouts against 149 walks.

If Lopez and Belisle perform to standards, the key to having a solid setup crew will be lefty Rex Brothers, who had consistency issues during parts of last season but has 1.11 groundouts to outs in the air and 142 strikeouts against 57 walks. All of his numbers will improve if he is consistently in the strike zone early in the count and ahead in the count.

This crew will set up veteran Rafael Betancourt, who, as a full-time closer last year, converted 31-of-38 chances, with many of the blown saves occurring when the Rockies were in the depths of losing and his opportunities were sporadic.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.